Monday, February 14, 2011

Was the Mubarak Regime Complicit in Egypt's Sectarian Violence?

Stephen J. Smith

The last year of the Hosni Mubarak regime was, according to The New York Times, "the bloodiest year in four decades of sectarian tensions in Egypt." Bookended by two attacks on Coptic churches in a country with a sizeable Christian minority, the year of bloodshed reinforced the idea that only a strongman could prevent Islamic fundamentalism from overrunning the Arab world's largest country.

But shortly before the Egyptian military moved against the Mubarak regime, Al Arabiya television reported allegations that the Egyptian government, not content with fighting actual Islamists, may have invented some of its own enemies. An official government probe is looking into reports that the New Year's Eve church bombing in Alexandria, initially blamed on Al-Qaeda, might actually have been perpetrated by the Egyptian government, with the intention of gaining sympathy and support from the West. The Saudi-backed TV station—founded as a moderate alternative to Al Jazeera, and host to Barack Obama's first formal interview as president in January 2009—also reported that British diplomats believe Egyptian Interior Minister Habib el-Adly had a whole department dedicated to these sorts of operations:

Habib el-Adly
Egypt's general prosecutor on Monday opened probe [sic] on former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly's reported role in the New Year's Eve bombing of al-Qiddissin Church in Alexandria in which 24 people were killed, an Egyptian lawyer told Al Arabiya.

Laywer Ramzi Mamdouh said he had presented a proclamation to Egyptian prosecutor Abd al-Majid Mahmud to investigate news media reports suggesting that the former interior ministry had masterminded the deadly church attack with the intent to blame it on Islamists, escalate government crackdown on them, and gain increased western support for the regime.

Mahmud said the information contained in some reports were "serious."
The proclamation, numbered 1450, pointed to the news reports sourcing a UK diplomat who explained the reasons why Britain has insisted on the immediate departure of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his regime, especially his interior ministry's security apparatus previously directed by el-Adly.

According the UK diplomatic sources quoted in the reports, the former interior minister had built up in over six years a special security system that was managed by 22 officers and that employed a number of former radical Islamists, drug dealers and some security firms to carry out acts of sabotage around the country in case the regime was under threat to collapse.

If true, this would explain the claim made by members of an Assyrian nationalist NGO that Egyptian security officials abandoned their posts at the church in Alexandria just an hour before the attack:
Eyewitnesses confirmed that security forces guarding the church withdrew nearly one hour before the blast, leaving only four policemen and an officer to guard such a big church and nearly 2000 people attending the midnight mass. "Normally they would have waited until the mass was over," said [Copts4Egypt's Hany] el-Gezeiry....
On January 6, 2010, just before the [Coptic] Christmas Eve Massacre in Nag Hammadi, security withdrew its forces from guarding the church a couple of hours before the shooting of the Coptic congregation took place.
This would not be the first time the regime (and even el-Adly himself) has been accused of sabotaging public order in order to bolster its own image. As Jesse Walker noted earlier, there were many reports that government security forces were behind some of the looting in the early days of the recent crisis, ostensibly in an effort to discredit the protests as chaotic and destabilizing.

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